Book Review

In the 2008 election, Hillary Clinton lost but feminism won

By Connie Schultz
Sunday, September 19, 2010


The Election That Changed Everything for American Women

By Rebecca Traister

Free Press. 336 pp. $26

In the early pages of "Big Girls Don't Cry," Salon's Rebecca Traister seems determined to alienate every female reader over 40. Had I fallen for her false start, I would have missed her considerable contributions to the ongoing feminist narrative described by Gloria Steinem as the "revolution from within."

At first, Traister gleefully harpoons the warriors of old to explain why her younger generation is done with antiquated notions of feminism. Consider, for example, her description of the women at a nonpartisan, pro-abortion-rights gathering: "It was a crowd of monied, Botoxed, electorally enthralled dames who, in the popular imagination of the time, should have had 'Hillary '08' mown into their Hamptons house topiary, if not their bikini lines." That comes a mere four pages after she argues that, if young women are to care about feminism, the "conversation had to be drained of some of its earnest piety. Talking about gender in the new millennium required us, I thought, to get over ourselves a little bit, to dispense with the sacred cows, to question power and cultivate new ideas and leaders."

Hillary Clinton had allowed her husband "to play her for a fool," Traister writes, before embarking on her quest to become "the most powerful girl on the Senate floor." A few pages later, Traister offers Princeton University associate professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell's parsing of Elizabeth Edwards's popularity: "A fat woman married to a good-looking man is always a good story, particularly if she is a breast cancer survivor who has lost a child."


By the middle of Chapter 2, Traister's book felt increasingly like the minutes of the Mean Girls Club -- and a waste of this 53-year-old woman's time. But with age comes patience. Good thing, too. I ended up admiring Traister and loving her book. In its best parts, it is a raw and brave memoir of a journalist who discovered that all is not well for women in America, and a description of how she and other young women are laying claim to their rightful place in the fight.

Traister offers a first glimpse into her reluctant but hopeful heart when she describes following Michelle Obama on the campaign trail in late 2007: "It was November in rural Iowa, and between the Hopperesque towns in which we were stopping we drove through farmland, and brittle leaves blew across the road. I had thrown some CDs into my bag, and at some point on the drive to Michelle's next stump stomp, on a crisp bright day following this crisp, bright woman, Bob Dylan's 'The Times They Are A Changing' began to play. I was thirty-three years old; I had no memories of the 1960s, in which the modern civil rights movement took hold, or of the 1970s, in which second-wave feminism bloomed. But I felt for a few minutes as though, on some small highway east of everything urban in Iowa, I was living in the most powerful historic moment of my lifetime, as if the country I'd grown up in, with its rules and limitations and assumptions about who can do what and who can be what, was finally beginning to fulfill Dylan's decades-old promise."

Traister started out supporting John Edwards and opposed even the notion of President Hillary Clinton, but ended up sobbing when Clinton conceded. The author is at her best when she explores the confusion and contradictions swirling within -- and without. Boldly, she takes on the "frat boys" at MSNBC, as well as the many young, white males on Daily Kos and in the Obama campaign who trafficked in sexist and misogynist attacks on Clinton.

"A pattern was emerging in the liberal, privileged, predominantly white climes in which I worked and lived: young men were starry-eyed about Obama and puffed with outsized antipathy toward Clinton. . . . I was made uncomfortable by the persistent note of aggression that marked their reactions to Clinton, and puzzled by the increasingly cult-like devotion to Obama, a man whose policy positions were not so different, after all, from those of his opponent. Hating Hillary had for decades been the provenance of Republican blowhards, but now men on the left were spewing vitriol about her voice, her looks, her presumption -- and without realizing it were radicalizing me in my support for Clinton more than the candidate herself ever could have."

Despite the setbacks and disappointments, Traister believes the 2008 presidential race breathed new life into the women's movement, in part because a new generation came to own it. Such a youthful embrace of the women's work yet to be done is exhilarating -- for her generation and for mine.

And therein lies my only caveat, which Traister may see as a matronly reprimand: Do resist tagging all of us over-50 feminists as dour discards. Your youthful vision is better than our crinkled eyes for navigating the future, but we hold your history in our hearts. We are still in the fight, increasingly with men foolish enough to mistake a woman's sags for surrender. We were once you, and one day you will be us.

Connie Schultz is a nationally syndicated columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and an essayist for Parade magazine.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company